30 December 2010

Renewed Greetings

I created this blog a bit over four years ago to store some philosophical essays and musings of mine that I created while attempting to sort out my worldview following my exit from Pentecostalism and my discovery of humanism, freethought, and naturalism.  I've since maintained the same essential look, though the sites and blogs I link to have continued to change. I've wanted to change the background look for a while now, so I finally decided to take the leap and upgrade to the new template. Most of my links and blogs from the old look have carried over, though I did finally get around to updating their names and links instead of relying on redirects to do that for me. I also added a blog I've been enjoying for a few weeks now, "The Little Book of Humanity".

The background image is the Stoa of Attalos. This is not the porch from which Zeno taught, but it conveys to me a sense of serenity and peace all the same. The pillars of the Stoa have stood tall in my life for several years now, both literally and philosophically: I used this same image as my personal desktop wallpaper for nearly two years. Stoicism has made me more mindful and free, though I think I may have overdone it at one point. Its focus on the individual as sovereign over his or her own mind has influenced other parts of my worldview, including my growing interest in anarchism.  I've been working on an essay called "From Freethought to Anarchism" that will explore the transition more.

I cannot predict what this blog will look like in the next four years, though I intend to continue philosophical musings and celebrate life and the human spirit. I may continue to explore blogger's template customizer.

25 December 2010

Christmastime All Over the World

Merry Christmas, belated Solstice, Fröhliche Weihnachten, Joyeux Noel, and Feliz Navidad! 

It’s Christmas Time all over the world
It’s Christmas here at home
The church bells chime wherever we roam
Så riktig god jul [Norwegian]
Feliz natal [Portuguese]
Shenoraavor Nor Dari (Dari) [Armenian]
To you

The snow is thick in most of the world
Children's eyes are wide
As old Saint Nick gets ready to ride
So Feliz Navidad !
Sretan Bozic! (Croatian)
And Happy New Year 
To you!

Though the customs might change
And the language is strange
This appeal we feel is real
In Holland or Hong Kong

It's Christmastime all over the world
In places near and far
And so my friend wherever you are
Ein fröhliches Weihnachten! (German)
Kala Christougenna ! (Greek)
Yoi kurisumasu! (Japanese)
This means a very merry Christmas (Christmas, Christmas)
To you 

15 December 2010

Science Saved my Soul

The Apprentice Philosopher recently sent me a video recently and after three viewings I realized I had to share it.   At the beginning of the video, its author recounts an experience he had encountering the Milky Way -- stepping out into the night,  struck by the grandeur and majesty of the Cosmos but being able to appreciate it all the more because of his understanding of modern cosmology.  He then compares this moment of soul-stirring clarity to the feelings religions attempt to reproduce and gain a monopoly on.  As he talks, beautiful imagery and subtle, but effective music plays in the background. It's in the spirit of Carl Sagan's Cosmos and Richard Dawkins' Unweaving the Rainbow.  Selected quotations are below.

The Milky way itself contains 200 billion stars, give or take. These numbers are essential to understanding what a galaxy is, but when contemplating them some part of the human mind protests that 'it cannot be so'.  Yet an examination of the evidence brings you to the conclusion that it is, and if you take that conclusion out on a clear dark night and look up, you might see something that will change your life. This is what a galaxy looks like from the inside -- from the surburbs of our sun. Through binoculars, for every star you can see with your naked eye, you can see a hundred around it, all suspended in a grey-blue mist.  But through a modest telescope, if you wait for your eyes to adjust to the dark, and get the focus just right, you will see that mist for what it really is -- more stars,  like dust, fading into what tastes like infinity.  But you've got to have the knowledge -- seeing is only half of it. 

That night, three years ago, I knew a small part of what's out there -- the kinds of things, the scale of things, the age of things. The violence and destruction, appalling energy, hopeless gravity, and the despair of distance -- but I feel safe, because I know my world is protected by the very distance that others fear. It's like the universe screams in your face: Do you know what I am? How grand I am? How old I am? Can you even comprehend what I am? What are you, compared to me?  And when you know enough science, you can just smile up at the universe and reply, "Dude -- I am you."

When I looked at the galaxy that night, I knew the faintest twinkle of starlight was a real connection between my comprehending eye along a narrow beam of light to the surface of another sun. The photons my eyes detect, the light I see, the energy with which my nerves interact came frm that star. I thought I could never touch it, yet something from it crosses the void and touches me. I might never have known.  My eyes saw only a tiny point of light, but my mind saw so much more. 

There's no word for such experiences that come through scientific and not mystical revelation. The reason for that is that every time someone has such a mind-gasm, religion steals it -- simply by saying, "Ah, you've had a religious experience."

To even partially comprehend the scale of a single galaxy is to almost disappear -- and when you remember all the other galaxies, you shrink one hundred billion times smaller still.  But then you realize what you are -- the same facts that made you feel so insignificant also tell you how you got  here.  It's like you become more real, or maybe the universe becomes more real.  You suddenly fit. You suddenly belong.  You do not have to bow down -- you do not have to look away. In such moments, all you have to do is remember to keep breathing.

The body of a newborn baby is as old as the Cosmos. The form is new and unique, but the materials are 13.7 billion years old -- processed by nuclear fusion in stars, fashioned by electromagnetism. Cold words for amazing processes -- and that baby was you, is you. You're amazing -- not only alive, but with a mind. What fool would exchange this for every winning lottery ticket ever drawn?

When I compare what scientific knowledge has done for me, and what religion tried to do to me, I sometimes literally shiver. Religions tell children they might go to hell and they must believe -- while science tells children that they came from the stars and presents reasoning they can believe.  I've told plenty of young kids about stars, atoms, galaxies and the Big Bang, and I have never seen fear in their eyes -- only amazement and curiosity. They want more.  Why do kids swim in it, and  adults drown in it? What happens to reality  between our youngest years and adulthood? Could it be that someone promised us something so beautiful that our universe seems dull, empty, even frightening by comparison? It might still be made by a creator of some kind, but religion has made it look ugly -- religion paints everything not of itself as unholy, and sinful, while it beautifies and dignifies its errors, lies, and bigotry like a pig wearing the finest robes. In its efforts to stop us facing reality, religion has become the reality we cannot face.

Look at what religion has made us to -- to ourselves, and to each other. Religion stole our love and our loyalty and gave it to a book, to a telepathic father who tells his children that love means kneeling before him.

There might yet be a heaven -- but it isn't going to be perfect, and we're going to have to build it ourselves.

12 December 2010

On Being Frank

Back in 2006 I titled this blog 'Let Me Be Frank' in part because I wanted to speak my mind earnestly, but also as a tip of the hat to an inspiration of mine, Frank Sinatra. I started listening to Sinatra in the summer of 2004 after picking up a CD of his ("The Very Good Years"), and he immediately rose to become one of my favorite artists. I liked Sinatra not for politics or philanthropy, but because he embodied traits I wanted to posses. Religious-wise, I was already in a downhill spiral. With every passing week, I felt more depressed, angry, and helpless.  That dissipated when I listened to Frank. When I hear him sing, I heard courage, bravado, exulting joy, and strength. I read numerous biographies and found myself wanting to emulate him. When I listened to Frank Sinatra, I walked a little taller, was a little happier.

Eventually I told religion to get lost and determined that gods or no, I was going to live my life, enjoy it, and do something with it to help other people. I made this declaration and defended it with nothing but will. Certainly part of that came from Sinatra's willfulness rubbing off on me. In the years that have passed, I've become far happier. In seeking peace, though, I've...wandered too deep into the monastery of contemplation. Studying Stoicism has given me much to be thankful for -- mindfulness, for instance -- but I've been too much self-absorbed,  too focused on being 'right' instead of LIVING.  This was brought to a head when I started reading Augustine's Confessions and a biography of Sinatra in the same week and realized whose spirit I'd rather mine be more kin to. When it comes to looking for the balance between Stoic serenity and humanist passion, I will err on the side of exhultive pleasure.  Life's too short to wear a monk's habit.

Anyway, being as this is Frank Sinatra's birthday, here's one of my favorite 'brassy' numbers. Transcribed lyrics are below.

I'm gonna live -- until I die!
I'm gonna laugh, instead of cry!
I'm gonna take the town and turn it upside town,
I'm gonna live, live, live until I die.

They're gonna say, "What a guy!"
I'm gonna play for the sky
Ain't gonna miss a thing,
I'm gonna have my fling,
I'm gonna live, live, live until I die.

The blues I lay low, I make `em stay low 
They'll never let `em trail over my head.
I'll be a devil 'til I'm an angel, but until then --
HALLELUJAH! Gonna dance! Gonna fly!
I'll take a chance, ridin' high
Before my number's up, I'm gonna fill my cup
I'm gonna live, live, live! until I die.

The blues I lay low, I'll make `em stay low --
They'll never trail over my head.
I'll be a devil 'til I'm an angel, but until then --
HALLELUJAH! Gonna dance, gonna fly
I'll take a chance ridin' high
Before my number's up, I'm gonna fill my cup
I'm gonna live! Live! Live until I die!

05 December 2010

On Being Politically In/Correct

Abraham Lincoln: What a charming Negress! Oh, forgive me, my dear. I know in my time some used that term as a description of property."
Uhura: But why should I object to that term, sir? You see, in our century we've learned not to fear words.
(Star Trek, "The Savage Curtain")

What is political correctness?

In middle school I thought it was the practice of altering one's language or remaining quiet about some beliefs to avoid engendering offense. In seventh grade I remember kids making a game of inventing 'politically correct' descriptions: essentially, we attempted to find the most convoluted way of describing people and things we could. "Short" became "vertically challenged", and "fat", "horizontally enhanced". In a less juvenile context, the motivation to avoid being offensive is why accepted terminologies for minorities change through time: 'cripple' has become 'disabled' or 'handicapped', and "Negro" has eventually developed into African-American, though "colored" and "black" were intermediaries.

While it is understandable that people would resist changing the way they speak to please someone else,  there are also reasons why certain words and phrases have become 'n-words', and why we perhaps ought to rethink our use of them. Language is constantly changing: as time passes, words are separated from their original meanings and intents. "Retarded" may have once been a clinical description indicating that a patient's mental abilities were impaired or inhibited, but people now use it to attack those who they believe are acting foolishly, or simply to demean those whom they disagree with or dislike. They thus corrupt the word: their  base intention has turned a once objective description into a mean and contemptuous term.  Those who prefer their language to be civil are right to to avoid such vulgarity.  Politically correct terms also sometimes make more sense than those which they replace: 'native American' may be lengthsome, but 'Indian' is ignorant.

Political correctness in language has its shortcomings as well: politically correct descriptions tend toward the ungainly (it being much harder to shout "Hey, person with a higher-than-normal body-mass index!" than "Hey, fatty!"), and some phrases simply do not work. "Differently-abled" is an example of this:  it says nothing, for we all have 'different' abilities.  The full use of arms and legs is considered a normal, typical ability of human beings, (thus the appropriateness of 'disabled') but it is not an insult to be abnormal despite the fact that there are those who take pleasure in mocking others for being different.  I understand why people who are sensitive about being different in some way would prefer that people didn't draw attention to their difference, but insisting that others use ungainly phrases will attract more hostility than the proposed phrase deflects.

I believe political correctness exists more as an imagined object of hostility than as a monolithic force in itself. There is no language commission in the United States which ruthlessly seeks out every indecorous word and sends it to a speech-gulag somewhere.  Instead,  people attack particular words linked to particular minorities as the minorities, the people themselves, begin asserting themselves. The titular "n-word" has been sent to a speech-gulag by people who stood up for themselves and forced the majority to consider: why are you using that word to attack us? Why are you keeping us segregated, denied equal rights and opportunities?

The reactionary mentality does not like being forced to consider its actions and beliefs. It does not want to consider that it was in the wrong, that it remains in the wrong by protesting instead of admitting to having acted poorly or having been ignorant. They thus invent the phrase 'politically correct' as an insult to approve their own actions. Suddenly, they are not the oppressors: they are the victims. Behold, the great white majority  are being persecuted because they can no longer call a wop a wop and a chink a chink! Politically correct language doesn't allow them to justify their distrust or contempt of others with a blow-rendering label.

 Imperial Christians are especially bad about this during Christmas. Christmas in the United States is only partly Christian: it carries the Catholic title "Christ's Mass" in its name,  but I daresay most people don't darken the door of a church on Christmas Eve or Christmas day. They certainly don't hear a mass. Many of the practices stem from sources other than Paulinism:  Christmas trees and yule logs are German, caroling and reveling Roman, and shameless consumerism  oh-so-very modern.  The date of the holiday itself comes from the winter solstice, acknowledged by most cultures in the northern hemisphere -- and yet Christians will claim the holiday is all theirs, that every thing about it is the exclusive property of Jesus Christ Incorporated. If anyone dares acknowledge that the Roman church's mass isn't the only religious or festive ceremony held in late December,  this is a source of great umbrage to the Christians, who construe "Happy Holidays" as an insult to their beliefs and every utterance of "Solstice" is an assault on the body of Christ.

I believe this reactionary mentality is why those who take pride in being politically incorrect tend to be aggressively rude and insufferably opinionated:  they like being jackasses, by god, and how dare you judge them for acting like a jackass? Being proud of being politically incorrect is tantamount to seeking a license to be a jackass, and doing it in the name of free speech, yet.  There's irony here, it seems: people rail against their actions being judged as rude or uninformed,  even though their actions themselves were judgment of other people.

For my own part, I don't think the labels themselves are the problem: they are merely a symptom of the tendecy of people to attack and demean others.  Judge the intent of language: once that is known, the expression is mostly garnish.

03 December 2010

Freethought Friday #2: From "A Lay Sermon"

If you want to be happy yourself, if you are truly civilized, you want others to be happy. Every man ought, to the extent of his ability, to increase the happiness of mankind, for the reason that that will increase his own. No one can be really prosperous unless those with whom he lives share the sunshine and the joy.

The first thing a man wants to know and be sure of is when he has got enough. Most people imagine that the rich are in heaven, but, as a rule, it is only a gilded hell. There is not a man in the city of New York with genius enough, with brains enough, to own five millions of dollars. Why? The money will own him. He becomes the key to a safe. That money will get him up at daylight; that money will separate him from his friends; that money will fill his heart with fear; that money will rob his days of sunshine and his nights of pleasant dreams. He cannot own it. He becomes the property of that money. And he goes right on making more. What for? He does not know. It becomes a kind of insanity. No one is happier in a palace than in a cabin. I love to see a log house. It is associated in my mind always with pure, unalloyed happiness. It is the only house in the world that looks as though it had no mortgage on it. It looks as if you could spend there long, tranquil autumn days; the air filled with serenity; no trouble, no thoughts about notes, about interest -- nothing of the kind; just breathing free air, watching the hollyhocks, listening to the birds and to the music of the spring that comes like a poem from the earth.

It is an insanity to get more than you want. Imagine a man in this city, an intelligent man, say with two or three millions of coats, eight or ten millions of hats, vast warehouses full of shoes, billions of neckties, and imagine that man getting up at four o'clock in the morning, in the rain and snow and sleet, working like a dog all day to get another necktie! Is not that exactly what the man of twenty or thirty millions, or of five millions, does to-day? Wearing his life out that somebody may say, "How rich he is!" What can he do with the surplus? Nothing. Can he eat it? No. Make friends? No. Purchase flattery and lies? Yes. Make all his poor relations hate him? Yes. And then, what worry! Annoyed, nervous, tormented, until his poor little brain becomes inflamed, and you see in the morning paper, "Died of apoplexy." This man finally began to worry for fear he would not have enough neckties to last him through.

So we ought to teach our children that great wealth is a curse.